Reflection: Some Thoughts on the Bible
by Father Don Thomas
The word "Bible", as many know, comes from the Greek word biblia, which means books. The Bible is like a library, containing seventy two books in the Catholic Bible and sixty five in the Protestant Bibles. The Bible is looked upon as the revealed word of God.
In this reflection I would like to point out some thoughts and opinions that have been expressed over the years about the reading of the Bible. One principle we have to keep in mind and respect is that God is the principal author of the Bible, and various individuals have been used as instrumental authors of the same book. This is exemplified when you consider a teacher who writes a word on the blackboard with chalk, and it is understood that the chalk is only the instrumental cause for the written word while the teacher is considered the principal cause. So it is with the Bible. God has used others and has inspired them to write what he wanted written for his people.
I surely do not consider myself a scripture scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but I simply want to express some responses to various "unusual" opinions and positions that have been taken against the Catholic Church for hundreds of years. Times have certainly changed, and some of these thoughts are never even suggested anymore because of technical progress that has been made in recent years, and the progress that has been made, ecumenically, which has allowed people of various denominations to sit and really listen to what the other really teaches and believes. This produces greater clarification and understanding. I still think these reflections are helpful, however, as we can see where we are coming from and how much progress has been made.
One erroneous position that was taken by many over the years is the fact that Catholics were forbidden to read the Bible. Catholics have never been forbidden to read the Bible, but they have been and still are forbidden to interpret the Bible as they please. Non-Catholics believe in private interpretation and the Catholic Church does not. We will consider this later on in this reflection, but for now we want to deal with the privilege of reading the Bible. If there are some who still believe that Catholics are forbidden to read the Bible, I would like to ask why the Catholic Church, in the front of the Bible, offers a special indulgence to those who read the Bible for fifteen minutes every day. To me, that is encouraging people to read it, not forbidding it. Historically, Catholics did not read the Bible, because the ordinary person did not have the education to read any book in a foreign language.
Even today, if Catholics never read the Bible it is not because they are forbidden to do so. What about the Catholics who do not go to Mass on Sunday? Is it because they are forbidden to? Not at all. Doctors, lawyers and clergy who were well educated were able to read the Bible. Then, too, Bibles were not readily available the way they are today, and it was only hundreds of years later that when they invented printing in Guttenburg, Germany. It was only then that the Bibles became more available. Up until that time, the teaching authority of the Catholic Church upheld the inspiration of seventy-two books in the Bible. However, with the Protestant Reformation came the claim that there were only sixty- five books instead of seventy-two. The important question of the relationship between faith and good works had much to do with the difference. A practical question I propose for reflection is this: where did Protestants get the Bible? It really was from the Catholic Church, and if the teaching authority of the Catholic Church taught that all seventy-two books were inspired, how could anyone be consistent when they say "we'll take the word of the Catholic Church for these sixty-five, but not for the other seven books". To be consistent, they either should have rejected all seventy-two books or accepted all. The same authority was safeguarding all seventy-two.
This brought about the idea of private interpretation and we are going to deal with that topic later in our reflection.
Another erroneous claim that was made for years was that the Catholic Church kept the Bible away from the people and, in fact, even chained the Bible down so that the people could not take it and read it. The truth of the matter was that Bibles were very scarce and unavailable, and, just as for years we have been chaining telephone books to the booth so that no one would steal them and the public would suffer as a result, so the church did chain these precious Bibles in the churches so that they would be available to everyone who wanted to look at them. In some of the oldest churches of Europe, one might still come across such reminders of the early centuries of church history.
Now some thoughts about private interpretation of the Bible. I repeat what I wrote above, that Catholics have never been forbidden to read the Bible but they have been in the past and at the present time they still are forbidden to interpret the Bible privately. Reading the Bible and then applying it to your own life is not the same as interpreting the Bible. Applying it to one's life is a very desirable thing. Interpreting the Bible is explaining what the texts mean, and that is the work of the teaching authority of the church. The reason why private interpretation is dangerous can be more clearly understood if we make the comparison with the constitution of the United States. Putting the Bible in the hands of every individual and letting them interpret it as one pleases is tantamount to putting a copy of the constitution in the hands of every person and letting them interpret it as it pleases them. What a disaster! Even though we may not always agree with our Supreme Court, we do need it in our system of government, not to make laws (that is the role of the legislative branch), but to interpret the laws that exist.
What the constitution means and what the Bible means should be the same for everyone. Just look at the number of Protestant Churches that exist! Why? Because they cannot agree with the way another church interprets scripture so they break away and start another. Or take a text from the Bible, like "This is my body" and ask three different ministers to interpret the text and you get three different interpretations. One says it is really the body of Jesus, another says "no, it is not really the body of Jesus" and a third might say "it is just a symbol of Christ's body just as the flag is a symbol of our country. Again, consider how so many of the Protestant churches differ on issues like homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, infant and adult baptism, the forgiveness of sin, holy communion, and other issues. Then when you ask what did Jesus mean, you easily see that the contradictions are so obvious. When the teaching authority of the Catholic Church interprets the Bible, the meaning has to be the same for everyone in the church. Then we apply it to our daily lives.
Before concluding, let me point out to Catholics what I would call "mistakes". I have often heard some Catholics say that when they were young, there was never any use of the Bible or encouragement to read it. That is not true, and it is a mistake to make that claim, because if you go back and find the oldest catechism around, you will find all the questions and answers that we learned and memorized, but if you are honest, you will also admit that there was always a Bible text underneath to back up or support the question and answer. The Bible was used. The other so-called "mistake" that many Catholics made after Vatican Council changes were made was to go around and uncharitably say, "we are becoming just like the Protestants".
The reason I call it a mistake is because I personally believe that it would be a good thing if we did become more like the Protestants especially by reading the Bible more and by tithing. In those areas, we would definitely be better off becoming like the Protestants in my opinion. In conclusion, let me say that many non-Catholics believe that the Bible is responsible for the church, while the catholic position is that the church is responsible for the Bible. While the Old Testament existed before the Catholic Church, it was the teaching authority that determined what books really belonged in the new testament and which ones did not belong. The church existed before the Bible as we know it today.
The Bible is a treasure. Let us always respect it and love it, and as people, who believe in God and in his son, Jesus Christ, let us take advantage of this powerful weapon at our disposal as we strive for eternal salvation. By reading the Bible, by belonging to Bible discussion groups and by taking advantage of films, tapes, all kinds of books, and other media, we can learn more about God, and as our knowledge increases our love for God and the Bible will increase also.
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